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Beyond Shul and State in Today’s Israel

The following is a transcript of Episode 121 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on December 29th, 2022 from Jerusalem.

I’m back here in Israel for two weeks for a set of Hartman programs. And I think, I think that maybe part of the reason I love being here beside the fact that in some deep ways it feels like home, and besides the food and besides my beloved friends and family is because I, perhaps perversely, really do love the contradictions of modern Jewish identity, and they’re no better found than in the state of Israel.

One of the big struggles for an American Jew like me, and perhaps like many of you, is what to make of, and what to do about the fact that Judaism in this country just operates as a totally different entity than it does for us in America. I’ve heard this voiced by some of the 160 college students from North America who are studying here for the week, who have asked with both curiosity and concern what they’re to make of Israel’s lack of separation between quote, one of the kids said, shul and state, a question that wisely understands that the American model is actually the unique one in the world, but Americans still wanna believe that it’s a better model for Jewish flourishing.

And it’s a question that’s often less about legal models and more about whether or not Jewishness here is going to feel familiar to American Jews or whether they, we, are going to be recognized here as Jews altogether. The first contradiction is whether the Jewish religion in some ways can impede a sense of Jewish peoplehood, even as it was originally perhaps meant to uphold it.

And I have so many mixed feelings about this issue personally. Here are three. So of course, yes, part of me both self-interested and dispassionately wants to see a greater separation of religion and state here in Israel. And as part of that greater recognition for different streams of Judaism as part of its religious tapestry. I think that in general is a better model to guarantee individual freedom of expression. And I believe enough in the marketplace of ideas and commitments and choices to think that Jewishness will flourish better under those conditions. 

Then another part of me kind of knows that when I’m here, and I’m here a lot relatively speaking, but I don’t live here, maybe I should say yet. When I’m here, I have the privilege of hanging around with enough of my people in South Jerusalem and praying at Egalitarian Minyanim that I wish I had in America, and even partaking in alternative and dissident kashrut standards, which can be found all across Jerusalem.

In other words, I don’t actually feel personally that same sense of alienation about my Judaism that I know many other diaspora Jews feel when they’re here, except for the infrequent times when I find myself perhaps begrudgingly at the Kotel. But for a lot of reasons, I find the Kotel somewhat unvisitable and maybe the sum total of all of this, it’s not really the issue that personally keeps me up at night, and I wonder whether it’s better understood not as the issue religion and state, but as a sub-issue to a much larger question about the viability and nature of Israeli democracy. 

Then there’s a third voice in my head, which is the one of distance and humility. Maybe indeed Jewishness is just going to look totally different here. Maybe we Americans have to see our own machinations around Jewish identity as equally dramatic to what has materialized here. Maybe we have to stop looking to this place, assuming it should approximate home. Maybe we have to start noticing that a huge number of Jews here just don’t share the norms and liberal assumptions of diaspora Jews. Maybe we have to stretch a little bit more to build bridges with a Jewishness that is just gonna indefinitely thrive under totally different state and cultural conditions. 

I try to give space in my thinking to all three of these voices. But I’ll admit, and I guess when it comes back to policy and activism, I’m gonna still tilt back towards my ideals, which I know are born in unique American conditions, but then again, American Jews brought a lot of good liberal stuff to Israel and found ways to plant it in Israeli soil. The Hartman Institute itself is a pretty good example. The project of seeking greater recognition for liberal Jews and Judaism in Israel. The project of renovating the legal and social structures here to accommodate new approaches to religion and state.

It’s gonna have to be native, but that doesn’t mean that even in its still slow-going now, it isn’t wildly important work to do. The last few years have been turbulent on this front, but maybe in a good way. The short-lived Bennett government maintained a status quo on security issues, but actually pursued a wide range of policies that sought to improve relations with diaspora Jewry and to address growing in internal Israeli demands for reforms on issues of religion and state.

But that government was short-lived, and we now see the rise of a new government that threatens not just to reinstate previous status quos, but to entrench a far more religiously authoritarian regime in this country. The government is being installed today and what’s promised so far is not good.

It includes the proposed legalization of the right of business owners to deny service to people based on their beliefs, which primarily threatens the LGBTQ community. There’s a threat to repeal the law of return together with a wide set of measures seeking to more tightly and normatively regulate Jewish identity, and perhaps the rolling back of any and all efforts towards the greater inclusion and legitimating of non-Orthodox Judaisms. 

So today, it’s I guess as good a day as ever, I’m talking to a scholar and an activist who is relentlessly trying to stay in this breach, actually trying to figure out today what it means to do this work in a state of Israel that is, because of this new government, fundamentally different than the one it was yesterday.

Tani Frank is the director of a new center here at Hartman for Judaism and State Policy. He has been working on issues of religion and state for well more than a decade, working with current member Elazar Stern, as a senior consultant for Economic and Legislative Affairs, was one of the founding directors of Judaism for All, an initiative focused on creating and empowering alternative religious services, and also worked with Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah Movement as the head of the Religion and State Department.

Tani, being here is a little bit of a stretch for the institute and probably a little bit of a stretch for you. Um, we are an educational organization and it’s a meaningful shift for Hartman to build into our work what is effectively a lobbying arm on this set of issues. But I think we believe institutionally, and I’d love to hear you reflect on this as well, pluralism and commitment to pluralism is as pluralism does. At a certain point you have to actually fight for your values and not just talk about them. 

So maybe you could start with that Tani. What does it mean for you to be coming from the work of kind of direct action in the political system into an educational organization? Why enter into an educational organization and where do you think the tensions and the opportunities might lie for what could get built out here and what we have to watch for?

Tani: All right. So first of all, thank you for the question. Uh, like I said before, it’s easier to ask the questions than to answer them, but I’ll try to. I think it was a very natural step for me. I don’t see the Hartman Institute as an only education, uh, center. It’s basically a political powerhouse. I mean, when we talk about being political, I don’t mean you have to be partisan. You don’t want to be affiliated with any specific party, but you have an agenda and you want to put it forward. You wanna have the Hartman Torah out there.

And I, I met here and group of people who wanna do it. We started doing it. What you are doing right now is that, I mean, you’re bringing the Hartman Torah to everyone. So we are trying to do it in Israel. And in Israel it means also to come and go to Knesset and to the government and to let them know that we are here. They usually are already aware of us at some point. You can’t just, you know, you can’t fly under the radar in Israel. People label you. They found you.

So I think that itt was a natural step for me. I believe it maybe was also a natural step for the institute. And in terms of being an education center, I think what we are trying to do in the policy center is also a bit of educating. We just have a different target audience. Our target audience are those who make decisions, are those who legislate, but they need to be educated as much as anyone else. I mean even more than some of the people that we are already educating.

Yehuda: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think conventionally educational organizations like ours operate on the assumption that the citizen is the sovreiegn, right? So you’re still engaged, any form of education is engaging in a political act, and you’re usually speaking to the general public who you hope will bring their values to bear, not just in how they vote, but how they live their lives. And I think maybe the work that you’re doing is continuous on the education spectrum, but instead of focusing just on the citizen of sovereign, focusing in particular on policymakers.

So let’s explore what that actually feels and looks like now, especially because your work is nonpartisan, right? Your mandate and your mission is to say, I’m trying to advocate for a certain set of changes and approaches around key issues around religion and state, and I have to deal with the cards that I’m dealt, right?

So if it’s a quote unquote favorable government, well then I have easy access. If it’s a, in theory, less favorable government, the work continues. So what has that felt like for you? And you’ve seen, because you’re an Israeli who lived in this country for the last five years, you’ve seen many different governments. What are the different ways in which that kind of work has looked like with all of these political changes? And if you have any sense of what might be possible over the next couple of years, that would be helpful as well.

Tani: All right. So when we just launched the center back in summer 2021, some people saw it as like another step, as a response to the new, like change coalition or change government, the Bennett Lapid government. But it didn’t have any connection to that. I mean the center was idea that we were talking about for years. 

Yehuda: Were cooking before. Yeah. 

Tani: Yeah, right. So it was actually a challenge because we had a new government that wanted to do good stuff in our eyes in terms of, you know, more inclusion, trying to improve the tension between the religion and state.

And so that was actually a challenge because when we have launched it and we said, and that also comes back to the question of educating, is that we see the policy issues that we deal with as a process that we need to, it’s a, it’s a long term process. You don’t come to, you don’t get to a position, a specific political position, and then you, you need to start thinking about your ideas. It’s, it doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t work. 

And I, I saw it firsthand that during the coalition negotiation in the previous government, I saw that there were lacking of basic, and good ideas, not, not only good ideas, but also basic, um, priorities that they need to now decide about.

So of course it was a heterogenic of a coalition you needed to, you know, compromise. You had the right wing, religious Zionist people, and you had the Muslim Arab Ra’am party. So we needed to figure out how to deal with it. But the notion that I had, that we came in the right time because we need to build here ideas, and that’s basically what the Hartman Institute is very good at, for the long-term process because this kind of window of opportunity, that’s how we framed it, uh, is going to happen again.

We see now that, you know, the new coalition, of course, maybe we’ll talk about it, but of course it’s very challenging, but on the one hand, but on the other hand, there is always feeling that it won’t last. I mean, the things that they’re trying to achieve right now, they create a lot of antagonism, which already exists, but all those kinds of legislation or proposed legislations or those things that were agreed upon in the coalition agreements that were published just yesterday, are seen to the general Israel public, specifically the secular and more traditional Israeli public, as threats to their own way of life.

So obviously I think we can see a new government being formed in the next three, four, five years, which might need those ideas coming back to them and see how they can fit in the specific coalition. We can’t, you know, you ask me what, what’s going happen? Nobody knows. Nobody knows here. 

We just came out of a, you know, that was like the the fifth or sixth round of elections. We don’t know how, how much this, how many years this coalition would last, but we know for sure that there will be another window of opportunity. 

Yehuda: Right. So it does seem to me, just as an observer from the outside that even though this particular election result produces a very right wing government that is aligned with Haredim, with ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a whole bunch of horse trading to make that possible, it does seem that a whole set of ideas and commitments have been on the rise, even among secular Israelis about the desire for more options to be able to participate Jewishly, a kind of dismantling of the hegemony of the chief rabbinate, that these are more and more popular ideas.

How do you explain why those ideas, which seem to be emerging from the general public are not translating directly into these kind of electoral results? 

Tani: Well first of all, this specific electoral result was a response to the previous government. Obviously, you know, those ideas that you talk about are not the first priority, that people don’t vote about them. I, I know a lot of people that carry a lot of, uh, more liberal ideas in religion-state issues that voted for Betzalel Smotritch and for Itamar Ben Gvir and even to the Likud, knowing that this coalition would be formed. Of course, some of them would say, you know, that was a compromise. I didn’t expect maybe some of these things that are now happening to happen.

We always hear those voices, but come on, you knew that this coalition would be formed. So my guess is that the ideas are still there. I mean, is, there’s still is a big effect and I think you can even see, you can see Netanyahu’s comments, his interviews in the American media, when he needed to put out four clarifications in 24 hours because of some things that were said by some people of his call perspective coalition, 

Yehuda: And his immediate family. Yeah.

Tani: And his immediate family. Well, that’s something else. I’ll put it as aside, but it usually has to do with things that are said that are seen by even their supporters, as illiberal, a lot more conservative and, and going to, and being part of, of this coalition as partners of Haredim. I think a lot of voters didn’t expect Netanyahu to be himself, you know, giving out everything that he can to the Haredim.

Yehuda: So I think that would be, it’s an interesting observation that it’s surprising to me and perhaps to more of our North American audience as well, that you would have individuals who actually hold relatively liberal views when it comes to religion and state who still vote for Smotritch and Ben Gvir, because perhaps it just doesn’t rise the level of being top priority or even number two priority. 

And I guess that’s, it feels like both, it’s good news in the sense that it creates a little bit more chaos and the possibility for long-term change. Maybe it rises up. But it also, it’s a little concerning if the feeling around liberal commitments to religion and state are, yeah, well, people support them, but it just doesn’t matter that much to them. 

So how do you go about actually moving something up the priority chain that someone will actually say, if I do care about this, it actually should influence how I act politically in the world and not just be, well, I kind of wish this was otherwise, but I’m willing to abandon it when it comes to voting.

Tani: Well, I mean, moving up priorities in terms of voting is something very big and very challenging. I mean, security issues are the first priority for most Israelis. It was, and it would be probably in the, in the future. The question is, we’re in, in the middle of still a political crisis.

It was still surrounding Netanyahu and you know, the Yes Bibi, not Bibi whole political crisis. But I think that it’s going to happen, what we need to check and, and to be focused on right now is to see what’s going to happen within the Likud. Because we already see a lot of people in the Likud, and I’m not only talking about members of Knesset or, or, you know, politicians.

I’m talking about supporters, I’m talking about influencers. I’m talking about media journalists that are affiliated with that kind of, you know, the right wing. I think a lot of people put out their concern and I think we will see some people step up in the Likud, and say things or maybe take a more liberal position, seeing that they don’t have a partner that can take them, you know, to the left and, and help them survive this kind of coalition.

And one of the things I was first surprised from just seeing the, the appointments that Netanyahu made is that he knows how to, you know, how to play the game, but he appointed Amir Ohana as the chair, the spokesperson for the Knesset, which is a very important role. And he’s a gay person, outspoken about it, of course you can criticize his actions around, you know, the gay community, the LGBTQ community, but still he did that.

And just seeing Amichai Chikli which is kind of affiliated with the conservative movement, although he tries to avoid it right now, but he agreed to take upon himself the more liberal positions in the government, being the diaspora minister, diaspora first minister, and also the social equality minister, which basically deals with feminist and LGBTQ  issues.

Yehuda: So, in other words, Netanyahu’s trying to, and Likud perhaps more generally, is trying to hedge against some of the more right-wing right parties that are there. 

So let me ask you one other political question and then we can get to some of the conceptual issues, which is that there are a lot of organizations that have been working in this country for decades to try to change the status quo around religion and state around the acceptance of non-Orthodox streams, around LGBTQ rights. And one of the things that successively happens is that while some attitudes have shifted, many of those organizations and those efforts have gotten very clearly delegitimized by campaigns from the right that characterize them with that kind of trifecta cocktail of name-calling, which is smolani leftist reform and anti-Zionist.

I guess I would love for you to give a read on like what has to happen differently around advocacy for these issues to avoid that kind of othering. It’s another way of saying like the minute you get characterized as a kind of diaspora-driven initiative, you’re gonna get repelled by people who will claim that you’re an outside influence trying to change Israeli society as opposed to operating within its native presence.

So how does one go about thinking about trying to avoid that while still also making an impact? 

Tani: Well, it’s a long debate. And I was part of this kind of debates before, but I think first of all, you can’t avoid it. Just make sure you have a strategy for it, but you can’t avoid it.

And I think we don’t need to always think about how do we avoid it. I think some of the reason why people didn’t succeed as much as they could have when they were labeled is because they tried to hide themself and put on a mask and, and say, well, it’s not me, it’s them, or I’m something else of what you think. No, we need to own our liberal views. And I think once we do that, so the playground is even, at least. 

And of course you can be labeled, but I think the power at least, I mean in terms of what we are trying to do here, and like I said, we are not partisan, we try to work and we bring here Likud, embers, we brought a Shas member here and we brought into the specific room, um, in your chair, um, just two months ago, sat one of the people who’s going to be a minister in this coalition, I think because they know that we care about Judaism and Judaism is something that this government really cares about.

So yes, some of them would see us as, you know, kind of affiliated with the non-Orthodox movements. And we say that we are not affiliated with any stream, but still, we care about all Jews. I think the basic sense of you are not trying to be anti-religious, anti-Jewish, when you meet with them and they see that the monster is not big as they think, I think most of them are not as careful as they would say they would be in the beginning. 

And they see the, the ways and, and things that they can do. Well, I have to say, some of it and maybe a lot of it would be under the radar and not upfront and not, you know, ride together to, towards the sunset. But still, we can do stuff, a lot of stuff together also with the, with this kind of coalition. 

Yehuda: So if liberal American Jews were setting the agenda, what you would see is basically a campaign for radical and total separation between religion and state. The construction of a religiously neutral public space, right. And within that context, if that happens, you no longer need the state to recognize non-orthodox form Judaism. You just basically create an open marketplace as has happened in America. I’ll pause by saying some of those ideas are actually losing in America right now.

So it’s not like that system is working great for the liberal American Jewish view, but my sense is that’s not actually what you’re advocating for. In fact, you even said, we’re very pro-Jewish. What is the nuance of what you would actually wanna see happen in terms of the calculus of religion and state here, knowing that for American Jewish audiences, it may not line up with what they would ideally want to see happen in this country?

Tani: Well, when people ask me about separation of religion and state, first of all, we call the center, the Judaism and State Policy Center because we talk about not, you know, any other religion. We talk about Judaism and state and their kind, their conflict. But when people ask me about the separation of Judaism and State, I usually say two things. One is that it’s not possible here. I mean, Judaism and State are so intertwined. I can give a lot of examples. There’s a rabbi in, uh, the committee that deals with the concern of how many medical things would be subsidized by the Minister of Health.

A lot of, there’s a lot of things that are being, I mean, part of us being a Jewish state means that we have the consideration of Judaism coming into policy issues. That this is part of what we are, and you have to understand it’s not possible to just separate everything.

And the second thing I would say is that we can separate and we can make the public speaks free or neutral for any specific interpretation of Judaism or specific interpretation of even Halakha. Because right now this is what this current coalition is going towards. They want to centralize and give more powers to the monopoly of the chief rabbinate, which is basically a specific body that has a extreme interpretation of the Halakha or even Judaism. And what we are trying to achieve is just to separate the Halakha from the state and not Judaism from, from the state. 

Yehuda: So what does that look like in practice? Because if it’s still, I, I understand it’s still a Jewish state, that’s not gonna change. And the, the notion of religion and state severing the Jewishness from the state, there are people on the far left who would wanna see that happen, but it’s just not a mainstream position here. And it would require a kind of undermining of the whole fabric of what this project, the state of Israel is meant to be. 

What is the practical consequences of deHalakhasizing the state? What happens around issues of personal status, around marriage, divorce, death, if Jewishness still is a variable in shaping those activities and, and creating the legal frameworks around them? What do you wanna see happen? 

Tani: So we just wanna see all kinds of interpretations, you know, of different kinds of perceptions of Judaism being affected, being, uh, decided. I mean these kinds of perceptions should be factors in decisions. When you talk about, for instance, we, we dealt with the issue of Shabbat in the public sphere. The basic problem with Shabbat in the public sphere is that there is only one interpretation for Judaism and what it does it mean to keep Shabbat in the public sphere.

And right now it’s the specific ultra-Orthodox interpretation of it. But once we accept, we acknowledge that there are other ways of keeping Shabbat, there are other ways of practicing Judaism, then we can let the communities have their own Shabbat. So one of the ways of doing it is decentralizing this power, not having a specific body, um, a national government body that decides what is Halakha, what is Judaism for everyone, but the other way, we wanna decentralize power. We wanna see more communities practice their Judaism the way they perceive Judaism. And we want the state to be able to let them do it and to make their Judaism flourish basically. 

Yehuda: This is a cheap question, so I apologize in advance for it. But one of the consequences of the total decentralization of Judaism in America, disconnection from entirely from any state framework is that you have like total radical biodiversity of Jewish expression and anything that somebody refers to as Jewish becomes Jewish. Is that what we’re talking about?

Do you fear that the decentralization of any of that form of authority, like the short-term version of it, is that reform and conservative Judaism gets stronger in this country? Does the long-term version of it wind up with whatever anybody wants to describe as being Jewish therefore serves the goal of creating a Jewish state?

Tani: Well, I think this current coalition is always talking about, you know, the need to strengthen the Jewish identity of the state. And I think when it comes down to the specifics, the Jewish identity of the states derives from the Jewish identity of the communities in the States. If we see the state of Israel as a project of the Jewish people, as a big community of communities, and the reshut harabim, the public sphere is that, you know, that’s where you can see that, so I, I don’t fear from, you know, seeing different kind of communities practicing their Judaism, it’s what’s happening already. We just need to acknowledge that and let people not be locked in Shabbat in their houses because one community decides for the other, that public transportation shouldn’t be a thing, shouldn’t be part of Judaism. 

So what I’m saying is we need to allow more Jewish communities, I think, and for the long term, I don’t fear from any alienation or fear, I think a lot of Jews want here in Israel, want more Judaism, want to express their Judaism, and just need to be allowed to do so.

Yehuda: I want you to walk me through how much of this to you is about a domestic priority. It sounds, the way you speak that this is because this is the country you wanna live in, right? And because this is how you wanna see a Judaism flourish, and how much is the variable of being the homeland and destination travel place for the Jewish people, does that matter as part of this discussion? 

Because the minute that that variable comes in of like, well, we want to be hospitable towards diaspora Jews when they come, that also invites its own criticism of like, what, we’re gonna change what we do here in order to accommodate people who come once a year?

So how much does that actually matter that this improve diaspora relations? Or should we think about that as being a totally separate piece of this work?

Tani: So of course, for me it’s not a totally separate piece. I think, again, it depends on the subject, on the issue, but basically a lot of things the Israeli government is doing, and a lot of policies affect not only the Jews in Israel, they affect the whole Jewish world. And I think most of the politicians, and we were speaking earlier about educating decision makers. 

So part of what we are trying to do right now, if we take the law of return issue, for instance, a lot of politicians here consider this issue to be a domestic issue, which is not, because part of what we’re doing, even if you disregard the effect that it has on aliyah, but the fact that the Israeli government or the Israeli Knesset would redefine the borders of the Jewish people and the Israeli book of laws, but still, it will redefine the borders for Israelis and Jews all around the world. 

So of course there is a connection, and I think part of what we are doing here in the Hartman Institute, in this policy center that sits here, and that’s part of why it’s here, I think, is to be able to convey this message to those decision-makers.

Yehuda: So let’s parse the law return if we can for a few minutes, because it’s been one of the items in the news. So, what I think you’re referring to is that the way it gets constructed as a domestic issue, it reflects the fact that there is a growing segment still, I think a small minority of the population tha is Israeli through one of a series of measures, those can be through immigration or even through, you know, foreign workers, asylum seekers, et cetera, who are part of the apparatus of the state, sometimes with citizen status, sometimes with not, who are not by any definition, halakhically Jewish. 

To the extent that this is construed by some folks on the right as being a domestic problem, it’s because that impeaches, that creates a problem for the Jewish character of the state of Israel. And it kind of breaks the solidarity of like, is this actually a Jewish state for the Jewish people? But the consequences of changing the law of return is that it’s been the significant portal for aliyah, right? For not only in peace time when Jews want to come, but for the capacity of the state of Israel open its borders when Jewish communities are vulnerable without having to check people’s Jewish identities that closely at the boundaries.

So you’ve been involved in trying to construct a response to this and I, as I understand it, the Hartman Institute’s position on this, the Center’s position is something of an intermediate intermediating position. The obvious position would be maintain the status quo of the law of return. The counter position is basically change the law of return to make it clear that the only people who could qualify under law of return are people who are halakhically Jewish, but you’re trying to kind of hang out somewhere between those positions.

You wanna walk us through what the position paper of the center is seeking to do?

Tani: Yeah, sure. So first of all, the ideas that there are on the table right now are not to minimize the law of return, um, to see that only Halakhic Jews are here, but specifically to talk about the grandchild laws, which means that grandchildren of Jews, and again, not Halakhic Jews, the law of return itself, defines a Jew as a person who, whose mother is a Jew or was converted and is not part of any other religion, which is not a Halakhic definition of who’s Jew. 

But again, those grandchildren of those kind of Jews wouldn’t be allowed or wouldn’t be able to come, and also, of course, their spouses and their children, which is now what’s happen. A lot of people from this previous Aliyah wave, you can call it, from Ukraine and Russia are not Jew, but not even Jews according to law return. And then some of them are all grandchildren. So this is a current debate in Israel.

And like I said, a lot of people from the right wing, and not only from the right wing, there’s, we need to understand that there is a growing pressure and there’s a growing support of this kind of legislation because people think people care about it. They wanna see people who are going to be here as part of, of this culture. It’s not even about Judaism. It’s about immigration issues. That’s how they see it. They see those kind of immigrants coming here and they see sometimes more Christian practices and they see a lot of more Israelis join and, and celebrate Christmas, for instance. 

And this is a growing criticism of mostly right-wing people in Israel. And they fear, they actually fear from a, a change in the Israeli, Jewish, you know, majority culture. Although most of the olim, even those if you check all service, all researches about a ways from the 1990s and there was just a research done two months ago. They checked and surveyed those kind of population and they said 24%, 25% said that they consider themselves Jews.

I mean, they see themselves as part of the Jewish collective, even if they’re not Halakhic Jews. So it’s, I think it’s a culture battle. I mean, it’s more of a fear that the culture here that the Jewishness of the state would change in some way. What we are trying to do is to, um, first of all, see and understand those fears to understand, of course, we don’t agree with the people who would want just to make sure that only halakhic Jews would be here, only those who were converted by a specific Haredi, you know, beit din would be here. 

But we do understand that we don’t wanna see here people who don’t have any connection, any affiliation with the Jewish people. And this is a very small part of the people who are coming here. So what we suggested is to look at the world Jewry and to see the changes that happened since 1970, since the first, this last amendment of the law of return. And to suggest something that is not, I wouldn’t say, it’s even intermediate because we suggest to even think about broadening the borders to even grand-grandchildren.

But as long as they don’t just come here and are full citizens and don’t have any affiliation to any kind of Jewishness, if they do have any kind specific affiliation, we will accept them and they would be welcome. And I think this is what most Israelis would want to see happening. So we can even make the borders even more broad. But make sure that people come here and wanna stay here and wanna be part of the Jewish collective. 

Yehuda: Right. In other words, that you create pathways towards immigration through this process as opposed to either automatic attainment or

Tani: Right, it’s a gradual process, of citizenship. 

Yehuda: A gradual, more gradual process.

What I appreciate about the way you framed it is that it actually echoes with what feel to me much larger global trends of kind of two battles that are taking place between the right and the left globally. One is around kind of, open borders, which is satire, nobody really believes in open borders versus closed borders. And in another sense, a whole bunch of countries dealing with the desire to preserve some mythic notion of a national culture. 

What’s interesting about the way that you’re trying to sit in between these is you are still trying to preserve the national Jewish culture in this particular place. You’re just trying to do so in a way that doesn’t wind up shutting the borders completely. And I wonder, it’s eminently reasonable, it’s very rational, but it’s an intermediate position that doesn’t have the same force of gravity as some of the stronger kind of ideological positions that are in either side of this.

So I kind of want it to win, but it, it feels like it’s gonna be a hard sell in a country and in a world right now that is so polarized around these ideological positions.

Tani: Well, of course you’re right. But still, I think there’s two sentiments in Israel about these kind of issues because the question, how will you frame it, how you frame the policy issues is also something that we are concerned with. Because when you talk about, you know, the law of return in Israel, they call it the grandchild clause, and the average person from the street would, you would ask them what is the grandchild clause?

They would say, well, something legal, maybe some grandchild of a Jew. She wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. But when you talk about, and you frame it as stopping most of the aliyah or at least parts of the aliyah, so they would say, wait, I’m, I’m against stopping aliyah. I’m, I’m all for aliyah.

Because people still, most Jews care. And this is part of, you know, the Zionist project of being a home to the Jewish people, and, even if they’re grandchildren, they don’t wanna see us Israel stopping the aliyah. So they wanna see the aliyah, but they’re still, when they come here and they figure out, wait, this is not we, who we meant to that, that they would come. Right? This is not the people that we were thinking about when you said they’re olim. 

So we are trying to going between this kind of sentiments and, and say the Aliyah right. The basic right of Aliyah should remain, but we will figure out a way for them to be able to be part of the Jewish people here in Israel, with a better affiliation to the Jewish collective. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean it, what you’re saying about aliyah resonates to me because when I’ve had arguments with friends, Israeli friends about this whole notion of Jewish peoplehood and the question of what we owe each other, right? And I’ve asked Israeli audiences that I’ve spoken to of like, well, what do we owe you? And what do you owe us? 

And invariably, what I hear from many Israelis is like, you owe us a bunch of loyalty and support from afar. Don’t get into our business. But support us from afar. And when I ask in return, okay, well then do I get validation from you about the legitimacy of my own choices? They say, no, I, my commitment to Jewish peoplehood is the doors are open for you whenever you want to come, and I kind of think that eventually you’re gonna need to come here. 

So there is a kind of a baked in risk that any tinkering with or any modification of the law of return, whether it actually or is perceived as kind of closing the door at all to diaspora Jews around immigration, it does really violate the basic covenant of Jewish peoplehood and, and that feels kind of risky.

Tani: Well, it is risky. I don’t think we would need to even, you know, address this kind of issue if it wasn’t, if, if it wasn’t for the actual real sentiment that people here are afraid from borders that are being opened too wide and, and people coming here would using, that’s the narrative that people are using here, they’re using the, the sources of the Israeli government or the Israeli state, the modern Israeli state, and then they go and slide somewhere else with Israeli passport. 

But I do think that once you separate, that’s what, how we call it in Hebrew, to separate between shvut and izrachut, separate between the, the right of coming here, which this is the basic, you know, this is the basis for the covenant, and from the immigration process, and you talk about immigration policy, as you said, you have the right, and you know what? You, you even even have more than the right to come here and be a citizen. You have the right to stay here because we also suggest that all those who are eligible to, in terms of law of return to come here and be part of, you know, the Israeli system and be part of, of the Israeli citizenship, they would be able to also to come here and not, you know, not be citizens.

This, right, we would actually want to see it broader. But then again, talk about the immigration process as something more gradual. 

Yehuda: Right, so the, and the metaphorical consequences of this, first of all, it’s very consistent with how you were talking earlier about the kind of marketplace of choices. We want it to be a Jewish state. We want people to be able to define Jewishness on a communal and a local level, and then to create, you know, pathways and processes for their communities to observe Judaism. 

Well, that’s gonna happen on a national level as well through these kind of same processes, which is by distinguishing between citizenship and residency, you’re also breaking apart the notion that merely by entering through the law of return does not confer a status of Jewishness.

That’s always been the case. That’s right. Right. So now it, now it ramps up in a much more significant way. I would understand why someone might be fearful in this country. Well, if I am in a Jewish state, I’d like to believe that all the people around me are halakhically Jewish. But this would place a greater onus, again, I think this is good on no, they’re not, you can’t assume that the people around you are Jewish the way you might think that they’re Jewish. And it forces you to create actually a civil society where there’s gonna wind up being totally different entry and exit points to the Jewish people.

It’s a captivating idea, which is to say Jewish peoplehood, it’s gonna be this big expansive thing within which a lot of Jews aren’t gonna think that one another are Jewish. And that’s okay. I would love to see that happen cause it’s already the reality it is with North American Jews. It just doesn’t really resonate with how I experience many Israelis thinking of what they’re actually living in. 

Tani: Well I think this is also kind of what’s going on in between, you know, Israeli domestic issues that we deal with because again, it goes back to what is Judaism.

You know, there’s a lot of people, when we dealt with the conversion bill in the last government, a lot of secular Israelis were asked, I mean, I asked them, why do you care about this issue so much? And a lot of them didn’t care. Yeah. But when they did, they said, well, I just figure out that the rabbinate is checking, that this is the way, that the rabbi is verifying Judaism, and this is the way that the state of Israel sees who’s the authentic Jew. 

Because if you pass the rabbinate tests, then you are at an authentic Jew. Then you can be Jewish, right? But if you don’t pass it, and you know, most Israelis wouldn’t pass those tests, wouldn’t know all kinds of questions that are being asked to those converts, this is the way the Israeli public is trying to figure out what is Judaism. And this is part of the battle that we have within ourselves. 

So it’s not only for an halakhic Jew in Israel to say, I thought a lot of people will be halakhic Jews. He can’t even open his or her eyes and see that a lot of people who are not halakhic Jews and are citizens of the of Israel state and are proud even, proud of their Judaism and wanna practice their Judaism, but just in a different way. 

Yehuda: It seems to me that the hardest lift around this is that a growing plurality, maybe even a majority of Israeli Jews, don’t originate from liberal countries, from liberal societies, don’t define their Jewishness through liberalism. Certainly the whole Russian speaking population. Mizrachi Jews don’t, and this is now, this agenda 75 years ago would’ve been easier to sell cause you were operating within a framework of some amount of commitment to liberalism. 

The theory that I think you’re putting on the table is a larger liberal framework makes room for illiberal Jews to be able to have their own space. But an illiberal framework doesn’t make space for liberal Jews. It’s a really hard case to make. Like how do you persuade those who don’t share a, the belief in a liberal framework that ultimately their interests are gonna be preserved by this liberal system when they might, for good, historical reasons, feel that liberalism is actually a threat to their identities.

Tani: Well, I still think that most of the illiberal, you know, communities in Israel, and let’s take the Haredim as an example, is a good example for that. They’re still afraid that, even though they have so much power and, you know, looking at from, from the outside, you, you can say, well, they can get anything that they want right now, but still they are in a minority consciousness because they feel that this previous government was trying to, you know, open their borders and trying to affect their, you know, autonomy as a community. 

So I think there is still, even in the most illiberal communities in Israel, there is a sense of a community. They wanna preserve their own community.

So if we talk about this, again, decentralizing powers and giving each community the opportunity, the ability to express their Judaism, the way they wanna see it happening, that’s maybe a liberal concept, but that’s something that, a concept that talks to even illiberal Jews.

Yehuda: That can actually serve them.

All right, so let me ask you one last question. One of the trends that I followed for a long time around this was the phenomenon of basically civil disobedience around issues of religion and state. And the way that it manifested is a lot of people who actually know rabbis just said, you know what? Forget it. Instead of waiting for the system to repair itself, I as a rabbi am allowed to, by Jewish law, a marriage, and I’m just gonna do it unlicensed by the rabbinate. 

And what that will do is it will ultimately create a critical mass of people who on two fronts, number one, a lot more Israelis, who will say, yes, I actually do want Judaism in my life, right, I just don’t want institutional state sanctioned Judaism. And number two, it will create such a critical mass of change around skepticism about the rabbinate that the system will collapse in and of itself. 

So I have two questions. One is, is that gonna work? Right? And number two, how much does the work of trying to work through the system, the legal system and, and actually changing state policy, I would imagine it benefits to some degree from civil disobedience, but it also is basically the opposite cause you’re trying to kind of trust the process and the system and civil disobedience is trying to undermine it. So I’d love for you if you could tackle those two.

Tani: So again, it goes back to why do we even have a policy, you know, center here. And I think one of the issues that we wanna advance our ideas, and this is only one path. This is only one way. Seeing those alternatives to the rabbinate, which I was also part of in initiating some of them, like you said in the beginning, I believe this is another path, but they lead to the same place for, we wanna see Israel as an inclusive Jewish state, a state that gives everyone and each person a place and of a Jew, a home.

So when you talk about policy issues, of course you, of course, when you talk about it, you need to address it as like, this is, this is the standard that wanna change it. If we can’t change it, then we need to set aside and, and, you know, establish and build ourselves for the time that we will be able to.

But it also derives from the political power that we have and parts of it is the masses that are created by those people who are doing this kind of action. So I think sometimes it may conflict, sometimes I would say, wait, you need to understand that we want to now, see let’s take the kosher market.

Tzohar was starting to give out kosher certificates outside of the revenue. But then this previous government was established and then they didn’t stop, but they said alright, we eventually wanna see the kosher market being open for a competition. We could have done it just by, you know, ourselves, our rabbis giving out kosher certificates.

But if we have an opportunity to do it with the government, of course it’s better. We wanna affect change in the government and parts of, a lot of people in Israel, or some communities in Israel being liberal, it also means that they sometimes trust the process too much and they don’t protest enough and they don’t feel that they have the power to do this kind of disobedience.

So we need to understand that some of these target audiences that we are working with, they need to understand that we are going in, you know, the main, the main way of, of trying to affect change and not only criticizing outside opposition to it. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I guess the symbiosis in some ways of trusting in the process and trying to fight against it at the same time is kind of an underappreciated aspect of liberalism. 

Tani: Right. Exactly.

Yehuda: Thanks for listening to our show, and thanks to this week’s special guest, Tani Frank. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman. It was recorded in Jerusalem by Yoav Friedman and edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show was produced with assistance from Maytal Friedman, Miri Miller, and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about Shalom Hartman, you can visit us online at

We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or if you have comments about this one, please write to us at [email protected]. You can also rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find the show. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening. 

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics